Sonoma County approves $28 million in pay raises for largest group of employees

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Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approved Tuesday a new labor contract giving about 1,900 county workers raises of 10% to 14% over the next four years at a cost of nearly $28 million.

The pay gains were aimed at offsetting nine years of what county officials termed sluggish wage growth for their largest class of workers.

“Labor peace is extremely important to us,” Supervisor James Gore said as the board ratified a four-year pact with members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest of county’s 11 employee groups. “It’s a good deal, it’s a fair deal, it’s an affordable deal for the county.”

The vote was 4-0 with Supervisor Shirlee Zane absent and only 10 people in the audience. SEIU represents nearly half of the county’s about 4,000 employees, and the terms it secures in bargaining often dictate contract terms for other employee groups outside of law enforcement and management.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the newest member of the board, said the pact included “a lot of really positive things” for county employees. “It’s really important we take care of our employees in the face of the rising cost of living in this county.”

The agreement with SEIU includes a 3% cost of living adjustment effective May 21, another 3% on March 24, 2020 and increases of 2% to 4% in March 2021 and 2022.

Pegging the latter two years at 3%, the contract will cost $27.6 million over four years and is included in the budget supervisors will approve by the end of next month, Christina Cramer, county human resources director, said in an interview.

Supervisors last month expressed dismay over $12 million in proposed budget cuts, with half of the amount attributed to keeping up with inflation and anticipated pay raises for employees. The tentative budget also slashed 136 county jobs.

Zane declared she would “push back,” calling some of the cuts to health and human services “rather draconian.”

Officials said then some of the cuts could be avoided if the county’s revenue outlook improved by June.

The new labor pact is intended to provide “catch up” after the last nine years in which SEIU workers’ raises averaged 1% per year, Cramer said.

County wages had fallen “sort of behind” and Cramer acknowledged that employees in some classes, including social service workers and nurses, had left for jobs in other counties, including Napa and Marin.

Board Chairman David Rabbitt said the strategy during that period from 2010 to 2018 had avoided boosting compensation that would increase the county’s pension liability. Instead of pay hikes, more money had been directed at health insurance and other benefits, he said.

“But at some point in time, people need cash,” Rabbitt said, explaining the uptick in spending on wages.

SEIU represents clerical, technical, maintenance and social and nursing services workers and supervisors whose current wages range from $15 to $46 an hour, including park rangers, janitors, chefs and planners.

Union members voted to approve the contract prior to the board’s action Tuesday.

Calls to several SEIU officials were not returned Tuesday.

Raises in 2021 and 2022 will be based on the lower of two metrics: a San Francisco Bay Area urban consumer price index or the percentage growth of Sonoma County’s property tax, divided by a factor of 1.5.

Cramer said the latter measure was “very unique in the world of negotiating in the public sector” and intended to cushion the impact of a potential local economic downturn.

“We wanted to make sure we could afford (the future pay raises),” she said.

Rabbitt said he suggested the metric out of concern that a decadelong period of economic expansion might come to an end.

On the other hand, the said, “if the county does well, employees will do better.”

The contract includes “equity adjustment” provisions that would bring jobs that are below market value up to the market average for the area, Cramer said.

Another provision raises the starting pay to just over $15 an hour for five jobs: park aide, animal care assistant, event service aide, office assistant trainee and public health aide, in keeping with the county’s Living Wage Ordinance, she said.

Negotiations on the SEIU contract began in October and were concluded last month.

The county has yet to reach agreement with 10 other employee groups. Some of the talks haven’t started, and others are in various stages, including almost completed, Cramer said.

The four-year agreement with SEIU “gives us some breathing room,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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